On July 1, 1971, the United States adopted the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing the right of those 18 years and older to vote. The amendment was one of the least controversial in our nation's history. It was passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress, ratified by the states in record time and signed by President Richard Nixon, who told the new young voters of America, "You will infuse into this country some idealism, some courage, some stamina, some high moral purpose that this nation always needs." In a separate statement when the last state ratified the Amendment, Nixon urged young people "to honor this right by exercising it -- by registering and voting in each election."
In the first presidential election after the 26th Amendment passed, young Americans exercised their new right in great numbers. Then, for over two decades, youth participation in elections fell. But since 1996, young people have turned out at the polls in steadily increasing numbers, culminating in the 2008 presidential election, which saw one of the highest youth turnout rates since 1972. Last year, young voters made up an even greater percentage of the electorate than they did in 2008.
Rising civic participation among young voters should be greeted with the same bipartisan joy with which the 26th Amendment passed. But instead, it's been met with the opposite: a barrage of state-level laws meant to make it harder for young people to vote.
Last week in North Carolina, conservative legislators introduced a set of bills meant to make it harder for many progressive-leaning groups to vote. One of the hardest-hit groups under the legislation would be young people. The bill specifically goes after college students by sticking a tax penalty on the parents of students who register to vote at an address other than their parents'. Students have long had the right to vote in the town where they go to school if it is their principal residence. Penalizing them and their families for doing so would essentially amount to an unconstitutional poll tax.
But it's not just the attack on college students that would hurt young people in North Carolina. These legislators also hope to impose a voter ID requirement, which would disproportionately hurt students, in particular young African-American and Latino voters, who are less likely to have a state-issued photo ID and more likely to be asked for one at the polls. They also hope to eliminate same-day voter registration, an important tool for young people who may be registering to vote for the first time.
North Carolina's attack on youth voting is just the latest of many. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, in just the first three months of this year, legislators in 30 states introduced 75 bills meant to restrict voting. In the two previous years, legislators in 41 states introduced 180 restrictive voting bills. Fifteen states passed restrictive laws in the period leading up to the 2012 elections. Most of these laws aim squarely at traditionally disenfranchised groups: people of color, low-income people, and the young.
Forty-two years ago, President Nixon hailed the 26th Amendment as a measure that "affirms our Nation's confidence in its youth and its trust in their responsibility." Today, young Americans are continuing to live up to that trust, organizing and exercising their right to vote in ever-increasing numbers. But what should be seen as a bipartisan victory is instead being met with partisan threats. Our young people, full of "high moral purpose" and a sense of responsibility to their country, deserve better.
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